BRUSSELS — The U.S. government has ceased a decades-long practice of jamming television and radio broadcasts from Cuba, a decision that will strengthen the U.S. position against intentional jamming by Iran, China, Ethiopia and elsewhere, government and industry officials said.
The practice of keeping aloft aircraft south of Florida to assure that Cuban broadcasts are not heard by U.S. audiences has long been a well-known impediment to U.S. efforts to build an international consensus against the kind of jamming that crops up, like a regular fever, in various regions of the world in times of political stress.
The U.S. jamming, which U.S. officials rarely talked about, was often the subject of Cuban protests at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Geneva-based United Nations affiliate that regulates satellite orbital slots and wireless broadcast frequencies.
But the ITU remains what it has always been: an organization with little power to act against nations that violate international treaties on the free flow of information, even when those nations are small. Given that it was confronting a large power like the United States, Cuba’s protests were like water thrown on sand.
But the U.S. jamming did remove a potentially powerful voice from the anti-jam coalition and made it more difficult to “name and shame” — the phrase that describes the outer limit of ITU power — nations that block broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America, Al Jazeera and others for political reasons.
“When the U.S. used to defend itself in international forums, saying that it was responding to a higher power in continuing the interference with Cuban broadcasts, it was a bit embarrassing,” said one government official. “Believe me, Iran and others have used this regularly to stop any attempts to get tougher regulations against jamming.”
Another government official said the Cuban jamming appears to have stopped toward the end of 2013. “This has calmed down now,” this official said. “The U.S. — and in particular the U.S. military — has come to understand how important international coalitions are, and how important it is that commercial satellites function unimpeded.”
The recent Arab Spring uprisings and the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, elections in Iran, and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict were all accompanied by intentional interference to satellite signals, mainly news programs.
Addressing an Oct. 9 conference on “Orbital Slots and Spectrum Use in an Era of Interference,” organized here by the French International Foreign Affairs Institute and the Secure World Foundation, Eutelsat Chief Executive Michel de Rosen said Eutelsat’s fleet of satellites suffered a huge increase in jamming incidents starting in 2012.
“Let me show you in terms of numbers of minutes our satellites were jammed,” de Rosen said. “In June 2011, we had 148 minutes of jamming. In March 2012, it was 4,714 minutes. In May 2013, it had increased to 46,000 minutes, and in August 2013 it reached 53,000 minutes.
“These are incidents of intentional jamming, not unintentional, and going from 148 to 53,000 minutes between 2011 and 2013 gives you an idea of what we were facing. It was mainly from three nations — Iran, Syria and Bahrain.”
De Rosen said that after the 2013 spike, the jamming decreased — 6,350 minutes in January 2014 and just 1,610 minutes in May. “It is down from the peak, but still much higher than 2011,” he said.
De Rosen said only 10-15 percent of intentional jamming incidents on Eutelsat satellites have been successfully geolocated. Jammers are getting smarter, switching off and on their transmissions to avoid detection.
The 21-nation Arabsat satellite consortium of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which carries some of the same programming as Paris-based Eutelsat, has witnessed similar levels of jamming, said Yasir Hassan, Arabsat’s director of programming operations.
Arabsat operates a fleet of six satellites at six orbital positions. Addressing the conference, Hassan said most interference to Arabsat transmissions is unintentional — caused by poorly trained ground station operators or bad equipment.
Satellite and teleport operators say accidental interference is gradually being controlled through international training programs, notably those run — with satellite fleet operator financing — by the Global VSAT Forum and other organizations. Enforcing Carrier ID, which identifies each uplink so that if it interferes its owners can be located and informed, is one of the key efforts in tackling unintentional jamming.
But intentional signal interference has been a special Arabsat worry because its home region has been where much of the jamming has occurred. Hassan said intentional jamming incidents in 2012 — some 300 separate attempts — accounted for 24 percent of the total interference events registered by Arabsat.
Not all of it is obviously political, Hassan said. During the World Cup tournament in South Africa in 2010, for instance, Arabsat was jammed by what appeared to be a commercial competitor.
Earlier this year, Hassan said, an intentional jamming source was geolocated, following a joint investigation with Eutelsat, in Ethiopia. Ambassadors from several nations visited with Ethiopian authorities to ask that it cease, only to be told that it was not happening, or that if it was occurring it was being done clandestinely without government approval.
Hassan said publicly denouncing the governments that harbor jammers — “naming, blaming and shaming” — is the best tool now available to stop jammers.
Hassan said ITU members — 193 nations — should be encouraged to give the organization power to keep records of jamming incidents and ultimately to threaten regular jammers with having their satellite systems denied regulatory approval.
One industry official said the ITU is unlikely to adopt such a policy anytime soon, and that even if it did, “many of the most notorious jammers don’t have their own satellites.”